Will Tacoma teachers strike? What about Puyallup? Odds are increasing

Don’t be surprised if the first day of school in Tacoma is delayed.

It’s not a sure thing, but chances are growing that teachers in the Tacoma School District could vote to strike for the first time since 2011, meaning school might not start Sept. 6.

Much depends on the outcomes of bargaining sessions scheduled for Tuesday and Thursday, said Angel Morton, president of the Tacoma Education Association. A Wednesday membership meeting sandwiched between the two sessions could provide clarity, but Morton freely admits she doesn’t know how it will go.

“I will bring them up to date with what happens at the bargaining table,” she said. “Then it’s up to the members to decide what we want to do.”

Similar tensions are building in the Puyallup School District, where teachers and district negotiators are locked in hard contract negotiations ahead of the planned first day of school on Sept. 5. Teachers rallied in Puyallup’s Pioneer Park on Monday, and they will gather again Wednesday.

“What we have been offered is not acceptable,” said Puyallup Education Association president Karen McNamara. “It would be our hope that we would have a tentative agreement. We have been representing teachers in Puyallup for 72 years. We have never struck our district.”

The tensions in both districts, and elsewhere in Pierce County schools, are part of a ripple effect across the state as school districts and teacher unions grapple with the effects of the long-running legal saga known as the McCleary decision.

Tacoma teachers rally to support their bargaining team outside the Tacoma Education Association’s union office building on Aug. 28. Tacoma Education Association Courtesy

In theory, the legal war ended in June, when the Washington state Supreme Court ruled that state lawmakers had finally met their obligation to address public education funding after six years of struggle. That plan, brokered by legislators in 2017 and finalized in March, rejiggered the state’s funding formula and included a promise of salary increases for teachers across the state, with a hoped-for average of roughly 15 percent to catch up after six years of waiting.

The last element has triggered contract negotiations throughout the state on an unprecedented scale.

“The Legislature increased funding for salaries statewide,” said Rich Wood, spokesman for the Washington Education Association. “That’s why we have so many negotiations happening in most school districts across the state. This is a very unique year. I’m calling it an historic year or a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to invest in compensation for teachers and support staff.”

Those potential salary increases, labeled by teachers and their advocates as the McCleary promise, are the driver of increasingly bitter negotiations.

The WEA frames it as a matter of simple math on its website: The Legislature allocated $2 billion for teacher salary increases, which was a key component of the McCleary decision. Teachers who have been waiting for six years say it’s time for local districts to spend their shares accordingly.

Some school districts have done just that, and the numbers have reached double digits. For example, the Shoreline School District gave teachers an average salary increase of 24.2 percent. Teachers in Bellevue received a 17.3 percent increase.

Compare that to Tacoma, where district leaders have offered teachers a 3.1-percent salary increase. Teachers say it’s actually 0.6 percent, on top of a previously negotiated 2.5 percent increase negotiated before the McCleary decision was finalized.

“That’s a COLA (cost-of-living adjustment),” said Morton. “That’s not a raise. Our insurance is going up, our housing is going up, and they’re offering us a COLA.”

Tacoma School District leaders say it’s not that simple.

“This is not easy work,” said Tacoma School Board vice president Karen Vialle, who spoke at the school board’s Aug. 23 meeting, addressing a packed house full of teachers clad in red T-shirts. “It’s hard and it’s stressful and it’s difficult, particularly when we do not get the support from Olympia that we so very much deserve.”

Vialle and other district leaders cite the negative effects of the state’s complicated funding formula, which capped local school levies in exchange for increased state funding, with the added provision that school districts can’t use local money to beef up teacher salaries.

That so-called levy swap hit Tacoma hard, in effect reducing the district’s overall funding, leaders say.

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“Some districts are winners, and they got huge increases in state funding without impacting their local levy,” said Tacoma schools spokesman Dan Voelpel. “Other districts like Tacoma are losers under this new formula. We lost almost as much as we’re getting from the state, so it’s essentially a wash for us.”

Those numbers have become the sticking point of continuing negotiations. Morton, the union leader, acknowledges that the levy swap hurt Tacoma’s bottom line, but she points to a provision in the state’s recent supplemental budget that includes a one-time $12 million allocation to the district to offset the damage.

“We didn’t see the huge gains in funding that some districts did,” she said. “We also weren’t the worst of the worst. Tacoma needs to look at their priorities. Tacoma is running a really high administrative load. My concern is that it’s the kids in Tacoma that are gonna be the losers. My people all own cars, and they’re willing to drive to other districts if they can make more money.

“They need to find the money to keep educators in the community, so our kids get that continuity.”

Two local legislators — state Reps. Jake Fey and Laurie Jinkins, both D-Tacoma — underlined the $12 million allocation point in an Aug. 14 letter to school district leaders, urging them to consider it while pondering potential salary increases greater than the 3.1 percent leaders have offered.

The 3.1-percent figure represents another facet of the argument. According to Voelpel, district leaders are relying on legal advice to support the number.

“Our position is that the law that the Legislature passed does set a cap of 3.1 percent for this school year only,” he said. “We’re not alone in believing in that 3.1-percent cap.”

Voelpel said district leaders took that position before state schools Superintendent Chris Reykdal issued an Aug. 22 statement suggesting that the 3.1-percent figure “is ambiguous, and we do not believe salary increases are limited to 3.1 percent.”

Voelpel said he’s not familiar with the legal analysis behind Reykdal’s views, but he said district leaders disagree with it.

“It’s almost beside the point for Tacoma,” he said. “Even if there wasn’t a cap, we don’t have enough funding to go above it.”

In Puyallup, the points of contention differ. Teachers point to budgetary decisions by the school board and Superintendent Tim Yeomans that focused on capital projects and infrastructure, contending that money allocated to such improvements drained district coffers.

Yeomans said the improvements were necessary to address the district’s runaway growth, and that the money couldn’t go to salaries even if he wanted it to.

He added that the district’s latest salary increase proposal is “significantly larger” than 3.1 percent, but it won’t reach the double digits seen elsewhere in the state.

“I think the world of our teachers in Puyallup,” he said, citing recent salary increases approved over the past three years. “I feel really bad for our teachers because they’ve been promised something that’s just wholly inaccurate. We are at the limit of what I feel I can recommend to the board. We cannot be in a situation where we over-promise something and three years from now we’re having to lay people off. We are not going to commit ourselves to something we can’t sustain.”

McNamara, the Puyallup union leader, said teachers can’t ignore the higher increases teachers are receiving elsewhere.

“I realize we won’t get Shoreline money,” said McNamara, the Puyallup union leader. “Do I want to bankrupt my district? No. However, if our colleagues five miles or 10 miles or 15 miles down the road are making significantly more than we are, they’re going to flee, and I don’t blame them.”

Sean Robinson: 253-597-8486 @seanrobinsonTNT
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